It was [Victor] Hugo, who, during the International Peace Congress that was held in Paris in 1849, declared, “A day will come when you France, you Russia, you Italy, you England, you Germany, you all, nations of the continent, without losing your distinct qualities and your glorious individuality, will be merged closely within a superior unit and you will form the European brotherhood.” The idea of the European Union has by now been allowed to seem so narrowly bureaucratic that it is hard for us to recall that it once shone with the light of a romantic vision. Each year, the British historian John Julius Norwich publishes a “Christmas Cracker,” a commonplace book full of fragments of funny reading from the pas twelve months; for 2012, he includes Gerry Hanson pointing out that, while the Lord’s Prayer contains sixty-nine words, and the Declaration of Independence two hundred and ninety-seven, an E.U. directive on duck eggs contains twenty-eight thousand nine hundred and eleven words.
O.K., it has its absurdities. But the dream of European union was for Hugo not just a way of preventing the disasters of war and approaching the problem of poverty; it was a larger way of insisting that cultural pluralism—indeed, pluralism of every kind—was essential to freedom. Hugo kept Republican liberalism from seeming fatuous by insisting that the liberal Republican has a singular, mystic insight into the intrinsic doubleness of life. At the height of the twentieth century’s calamities, Hugo’s Romantic Republicanism could seem fragile and unconvincing; the Javerts then held the floor. There are many things wrong or encumbering or even foolish about the European Union, but when we watch “Les Misérables,” we should save a thought for how much of Hugo’s vision has now been achieved. What Hugo wanted, and what he used all that melodramatic and storytelling power to promote, was a Europe accepting in its pluralism, and widely based in its prosperity. His ghost now has it.